In the wake of recent high-profile drinking water crises, look to books, articles and narrative literature for valuable insight in preparing for and better understanding what is at stake.
The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, brought the importance and value of clean drinking water to our nation’s attention. Unfortunately, Flint isn’t the first community to deal with a water crisis — and it likely won’t be the last. Good news is, there are several great reads that can give us insight into these cases. The true stories they share, which take place across the United States, in Canada and Africa, show the importance of our work in providing safe drinking water.
Sometimes, it’s nice to take a break from reading scientific papers and technical publications. A People magazine article in 2016 showed a mother’s concern for her children as the water in her home “smelled like rotten eggs, and it was coming through our kitchen tap dark brown.” Her concern led to exposure of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. It was reading this article that made me consider the lessons we can learn from cases of water contamination and conflict, inspiring us to continue our important work.
Let’s take a look at the publications.
A Civil Action
By Jonathan Harr
Jonathan Harr’s award-winning book, “A Civil Action,” looks at the landmark environmental lawsuit filed by eight Woburn, Massachusetts, families in the 1980s. The lawsuit alleged two Fortune 500 companies were disposing of toxic chemicals that infiltrated groundwater. City wells unknowingly captured the contaminated water and distributed it to residents. The suit alleged the chemicals in the drinking water caused severe health effects, including several cases of leukemia in children and eventually, death. A 1998 motion picture, starring John Travolta, popularized the story.
The book is a lesson to the extreme sensitivity of our water supplies, and the precautions we have to take to avoid catastrophic results. The Woburn case was the first clear association of water contamination and elevated leukemia rate. The narrative also shows the challenge of presenting scientific information to the general public.
A Long Walk to Water
By Linda Sue Park
The New York Times bestseller, “A Long Walk to Water,” tells two stories. One is the true story of an 11-year-old boy in 1985. The other is the fictional story of an 11-year-old girl in 2008. The stories intersect in a surprising and moving way. Both stories revolve around the central theme of access to clean water. The boy, Salva, is one of the “lost boys of Sudan,” refugee children searching for their families and a safe place to stay. After leaving Africa as an adult, he creates the program, “Water for South Sudan.” The program drills wells for villages in Sudan. His story intersects with the fictional story of Nya, who walks for hours every day to access clean water for her family.
These two stories are an important reminder of the limited access to clean water much of the world still faces, and the incredible results that happen when we’re determined to make a difference.
Tom’s River: A Story of Science and Salvation
By Dan Fagin
Tom’s River, New Jersey, is the backdrop for one of the largest legal settlements ever in toxic material dumping cases. For decades, beginning in the 1950s, chemical companies used the town as their private dumping grounds, burying tens of thousands of drums filled with chemicals. The drums leaked and discharged billions of gallons of toxic chemicals into the nearby river. The result was a notorious cluster of childhood cancers linked to local air and water pollution. The book won the Pulitzer Price for non-fiction, as well as the Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the National Academies Communication Award.
“Tom’s River” is another poignant reminder of the accountability organizations must take to ensure the health of our communities — and the dangerous results if they don’t.
The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare
New York Times Magazine
January 6, 2016
Welcome to Beautiful Parkersburg, West Virginia
By Mariah Blake
These articles are excellent long-form online content by New York Times Magazine and the Huffington Post. Both articles talk about the story of a large chemical company that began using the chemical PFOA to manufacture Teflon at a plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, in the 1950s. Instructions from the supplier of PFOA specified disposal by incineration or sending to chemical waste facilities for proper disposal. The manufacturing company’s own instructions specified not to flush PFOA into surface water or sewers. But, in the following years, the company pumped hundreds of thousands of pounds of PFOA into the Ohio River, as well as placed more than 7,000 tons of chemical-laced sludge into unlined pits where it seeped straight into the ground. Decades later, the chemical entered the water table, affecting the drinking water of more than 100,000 people, causing severe illness and disease.
This case is an excellent reminder that we need to be diligent in ensuring our communities have access to clean water, and our need to confirm the companies operating among us are doing their part as well. Parkersburg also demonstrates the tension between disease and pollution and economic security in American communities.
What Happens to the U.S. Midwest When the Water’s Gone?
By Laura Parker
National Geographic Magazine
The Ogallala aquifer is one of the world’s largest aquifers, supplying water to eight states across the Great Plains. For decades, it supplied unending water for irrigation to farmlands and cities across the Midwest. It supplies drinking water to 82 percent of people living within its boundaries. But, it’s drying up. The aquifer is now at risk for over-extraction of water and pollution. This is due in part to the differences in state regulations on how much water each state can take out. The aquifer has been accumulating for 15,000 years, from raindrops and snowmelt seeping into the ground. Today it is being pumped out faster than it is being replenished.
It’s important, now more than ever, to take steps to preserve our depleting natural resources.
The Atlas of Water: Mapping the World’s Most Critical Resource
By Maggie Black and Jannet King
This book uses graphics, maps, charts and more to create a visual resource of the state of water across the globe. The world’s population is increasing at a pace never seen before. Climate change is having a profound effect on our environment. Together they’re pushing us closer and closer to a global water crisis. This book explores the human interaction with water, as well as how we impact it every day, through interesting facts and figures. It also examines tools that we can use to manage water, and preserve it for future generations.
By looking at water globally, we can make better decisions locally that contribute to the greater good.
Learning, Recycling and Becoming Little Heroes
By Gale Glover
This book examines the Flint water crisis through the eyes of the children who lived through it. The kids learned new ways of eating, drinking and living during the crisis. Volunteers as young as four-years-old pitched in during this challenging time by passing out water, recycling bottles and helping others in the community persevere.
Even though they’re small, children can make a significant impact on society — and set it up for future success.
Books, articles and narrative literature can be as valuable as white papers in understanding how to handle or prepare for a potential water crisis. And maybe a little more entertaining.
The future of the world’s water supply depends on one thing. Us. To make a difference, and sustain this life-giving resource for generations to come, we need to make the changes necessary to protect it.
Susan Wojtkiewicz, PE, is a drinking water engineer dedicated to clean water.